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Opinion | The Coronavirus May Change College Admissions Forever

While these exams have been blamed for perpetuating inequality, they in some cases play the opposite role. In fact, a special committee of educators in the University of California system produced an exhaustively detailed report this year that determined that the use of SAT’s in admissions had not lessened diversity and that SAT scores were useful predictors of college success. (University leaders elected to switch to test-optional admissions for a few years anyway.)

The SAT’s downgrade won’t be fleeting, Selingo said. “We’re going to have a whole admissions year with scores of places going test-optional,” he said. “Once their world doesn’t come crashing down and they still recruit a class, those colleges are not going to flock back to the test. I think it’s been knocked off the pedestal permanently.”

He makes the same guess about what he calls “application bloat,” referring to the flamboyant multiplicity of clubs, causes, hobbies and other materials that applicants assemble and showcase. The pandemic put many of those activities on hold, creating a pause in which he believes that some schools and some students will recognize the lunacy of this overkill.

“It’s going to be difficult for students to fill in 10 spaces for extracurricular activities, flag down teachers for recommendations or take six A.P. courses and exams,” he said. “Admissions officers are going to have to focus on what matters. That means in the future they can pare back the application and reduce our collective anxiety about what it takes to get into college.”

Apart from the increased early-decision emphasis, which can favor in-the-know kids from in-clover families, the changes that Selingo predicts represent a back-to-basics streamlining of the process. It may have been born of terrible circumstances, but it’s also sensible and overdue.

That streamlining extends to how students will choose schools during the coming admission cycle. For epidemiological and economic reasons, many of them will forgo all the campus tours and all the assessments of how comfy the dormitories seem, how tasty the food is, how high the spires rise and how lushly the trees grow. They’ll perhaps look more closely at the course catalog, the roster of professors.

Selingo noted that many colleges based a big part of their sales pitch on their physical setting and even on lifestyle and social perks that are less relevant than ever, given pandemic-related restrictions. “That’s forcing parents and students to ask, ‘What are we really paying for?,’” he said.

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